Clerks, Colleagues Mourn Rehnquist at Supreme Court

Times Staff Writer

William H. Rehnquist entered the Great Hall of the U.S. Supreme Court building for the last time Tuesday, carried in a flag-draped casket by a former administrative assistant and seven of his former law clerks.

The stone-faced pallbearers included Judge John G. Roberts Jr., whom President Bush has nominated to succeed Rehnquist as chief justice. As they walked the wooden coffin up the 40 white marble steps that are more often the site of protesters addressing issues before the court, members of the current court stood to receive the entourage.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who had known Rehnquist since they were classmates at Stanford University’s Law School more than half a century ago, wiped away tears as five of her colleagues -- Justices John Paul Stevens, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer -- looked on with somber faces. A court spokesman said Justice David H. Souter was at home in New Hampshire and Justice Anthony M. Kennedy was in China. Both are expected at today’s funeral.


The casket lay on a black-draped platform, or catafalque, that was used for Abraham Lincoln’s casket in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol a century and a half ago and was lent by Congress for the occasion. A portrait of Rehnquist in his black robe with five gold bars on the sleeves, made famous when he wore it to preside over President Clinton’s impeachment trial, was placed on an easel nearby.

On both sides, along the walls, were busts of the 15 former chief justices, silent witnesses to history. An honor guard of two Supreme Court policemen and two former law clerks stood at attention. Two huge stands of flowers -- red roses with blue and white accents -- stood on either side of the casket.

Outside, flags flew at half-staff as members of the public came to pay their respects. There were government workers on break and tourists hoping to catch a glimpse of high ceremony. There weren’t the throngs that attended the farewell to former President Reagan last year, but there was a sense of national duty to pay respect.

“It’s good to be reminded that one person can have an impact,” said Vicki Crooks, who was visiting from Oregon to help her daughter settle into classes at George Washington University. “He was willing to stand by his convictions, whether or not the decision was controversial.”

Fran Bigelow, here from Colorado for a wedding, nodded in agreement. “That’s what we want, someone with the strength of conviction,” she said. “In politics, so often things can be swayed.”

Phyllis Thomas was reading “How to Study Law and Take Law Exams” as she waited in line. A Library of Congress employee who plans to start law school next year, Thomas said she follows court decisions on minorities, the Patriot Act and her specialty, copyright law. “I came to pay my respects,” she said.


Joe Ness of Snohomish, Wash., brought his entire family -- wife, parents and children. Ken Haller said the clan had planned the trip so that he, a veteran of the 345th Bomb Group, could see the National World War II Memorial. His wife, Ella, was heartened “to be able to climb all those steps at age 82.” And 11-year-old Kevin Ness, asked what he thought of the whole experience, replied: “Cool.”

Individual roses were left on the Supreme Court’s first step. Just before 4 p.m., Bush and his wife, Laura, came to honor the late chief justice, escorted by Scalia. The court remained open until 10 p.m. Tuesday to accommodate mourners. It will be open again today from 10 a.m. to noon.

Although Rehnquist was a Lutheran, his funeral will be held at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, the Roman Catholic church where President Kennedy’s funeral Mass took place. Rehnquist’s family asked to use the large facility to host all the mourners, the Archdiocese of Washington said.

The ceremony will be Lutheran, conducted by clergy from Rehnquist’s church, with opening remarks by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Bush and O’Connor, along with Rehnquist family members, will offer remembrances.

Burial at Arlington National Cemetery -- where Rehnquist’s wife, Natalie, was interred in 1991 -- will be private.

Rehnquist served on the Supreme Court for 33 years, the last 19 as chief justice. His children -- James and Janet, both lawyers, and Nancy Spears, whom Rehnquist credited as an editor of his four books on history -- were with him at his Arlington, Va., home when he died Saturday at age 80 after an almost yearlong battle with thyroid cancer.


In a prayer service at the court Tuesday morning, some of the grandchildren sobbed and others cast their eyes down. The pallbearers -- David G. Leitch, Frederick W. Lambert, Ronald J. Tenpas, James Duff, Kerri Martin Bartlett, Gregory G. Garre, John C. Englander and Roberts -- and Rehnquist’s other former clerks and staff members lining the Great Hall looked ashen.

“Rest here now, child of God, William Hubbs Rehnquist,” said the Rev. George W. Evans Jr., pastor of Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in McLean, Va., which Rehnquist attended. “Rest here in the halls you know so well.”

Outside, Vera Mann, who lives in Washington, waited to say goodbye. “He lived by the Constitution, as opposed to judging politically,” she said. “He gave us 33 years; we can give him a half an hour.”